November 11, 2009

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Nov. 30. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.

It's an elusive thing, this business of trying to explain what makes Jimmie Johnson quite possibly the greatest driver in the history of American stock car racing. Unlike most sports, you can't throw out 40-yard dash times to describe a driver's strength, or measure his vertical jump or gauge his accuracy from beyond the three-point line or count how many times he can bench press 225 pounds. In NASCAR, skill is less discernable, less obvious.

Yes, Johnson has off-the-charts hand-eye-foot coordination and freakish peripheral vision, but all the good ones in NASCAR possess these traits. What separates Johnson from everyone else in the sport, I believe, is one thing: His mind.

This isn't the sexiest skill -- surely not as hold-your-breath riveting as, say, KyleBusch's ability to essentially slide sideways through a turn at 180 miles per hour -- but Johnson is simply the best in the sport when it comes to sensing a problem with his car and using incredibly descriptive language to articulate what he's feeling behind the wheel to his crew chief ChadKnaus. "When Jimmie talks over the radio and tells me what's going on with the car, it's almost like I picture in my head, in three dimensions, what's transpiring inside car," Knaus told me a few years back. "I don't know how we developed it, but our communication is awesome. And that just goes to how Jimmie is able to describe so accurately what he's sensing."

Of course, there are other things that make Johnson, who in November will become the first driver in NASCAR history to win four straight championships, so terrific behind the wheel:

1. He rarely makes mistakes. In fact, as someone who has been closely following NASCAR since Johnson's second year in 2003, I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen him commit a serious gaffe on the track or on pit road. In other words, he doesn't beat himself.

2. He rarely puts his car in harm's way. No driver in the sport is better at keeping his fenders clean than Johnson. If he has what he believes is a car capable of finishing no higher than fourth, then he won't overzealously push his equipment gunning for the win. A lot of the drivers do this -- and most of them either crash or blow up their engine in the process. Not Johnson.

3. He pilots superior equipment. To win in NASCAR in this era, you must have elite equipment. Johnson does. Racing for Hendrick Motorsports, which is the biggest and richest organization in the sport, Johnson has a car that's capable of winning week in and week out. The majority of the drivers in the sport can't say this.

4. He's got guts. Johnson has been in some wicked crashes in his life -- he nearly died at age 19 when he crashed in the Baja 1000 and he endured a wicked lick at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2005--but he's never missed a start due to injury and he's never lost the fearlessness it takes to win races. Many drivers, after a big crash, just aren't the same. Jeff Gordon, for instance, has been in several horrifying wrecks over the last five years -- more than any other driver. I don't think it's a coincidence that he hasn't won a championship over this time.

5. He's the best closer in NASCAR history. If Johnson is in contention for the checkers late in a race, there's no one better at snookering the field and reaching the finish line first. And if Johnson is in within striking distance of the title with five races left in the season, well, game over.

6. He has zero enemies in the sport. This is key because rival drivers won't take him out of a race by, say, booting him into the wall. Why is Johnson so well liked? Mostly because when he does make a mistake he'll go out of his way to apologize to the driver that he angered. He did this a few years back in Atlanta with Denny Hamlin, and the two have been friendly ever since.

So really, it's a no-brainer picking Johnson as my 2009 Sportsman of the Year. After all, no team or individual in any sport--not the Yankees, not the Patriots, hell, not even Tiger Woods -- has been as dominant as Jimmie Johnson over the last four years. But what's even scarier for the rest of the drivers in NASCAR is this: It doesn't look like Johnson, who at age 34 is in the prime of his racing career, will be losing his grip on the Sprint Cup trophy anytime soon.Agree with this selection. Give us your Sportsman pick here.

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